The Self, the Church, and Medieval Identities: The Evolution of the Individual in Medieval Literature
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation examines the construction of literary identities by medieval women, recognizable as an authorial voice that is distinct from those of her contemporaries yet congruent with the gender norms and expectations of her contemporary culture, in both religious and secular literatures from late antiquity through the waning of the Middle Ages. The argument posited here is that texts authored by women, as informed by concurrent male texts and the literary traditions in which individual authors seek to participate, can be read as a taxonomy of responses to the traditions individual authors appropriate and to their contemporaries, directly responding to and incorporating elements from each in order to position themselves within the literate culture by accessing the shared traditions, norms and memories of the community. Focusing on primary texts authored by women makes it possible to more fully examine the intertextual nature of women's identity in medieval literature, the impact of male discourse on the identities available to women as writers and as women, and the diverse positions they assign to themselves through the construction of literary identities, both orthodox and heterodox. The delimination of the culture and the traditions in which individual authors participate clarifies both the self-positioning engaged in by individual authors and the function of their text, in its native context, while placing these texts and their authors in a meaningful context for modern scholars. The project is divided into six broadly chronological chapters which engage with key authors and place them in dialogue with both their male contemporaries and previous generations of women's writings. The first chapter, "(En)Gendering Texts," focuses on the texts from late antiquity which have the most measurable and lasting impact on subsequent women's writings and engage directly with the patristic sources for communal Christian identity in the period. The second chapter, "Perpetua and Her Daughters," highlights the role of women's texts in the education of both genders throughout the period and begins the process of contextualizing women's independent identities within the rubric of the Christian West. Chapter Three, "Constructing a New Self," approaches the letters of Heloise to Abelard and her other correspondents as a model for women's writing and the construction of polysemic identities within the traditions. Chapter Four, "Re-Envisioning the Passions," places mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich in dialogue with the patristic traditions and medieval philosophy in order to illustrate the degrees of self-determination possible in women's texts while continuing to be viewed as orthodox. The fifth chapter examines the phenomena of affective piety, ascetic mysticism, and the uses of the body in creating a tangible identity for women writers in the period. The final chapter examines the tensions between the medieval and patristic traditions and the changing political and social geography of the later Middle Ages and the impact of these cultural shifts on women's writing and their access to the traditions.
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